Playing solid defense has seemingly been a voluntary option for the Houston Rockets in their current four-game losing streak.
At the end of February, it seemed like the Houston Rockets had finally found their groove while also finally establishing their identity. They just finished defeating the Boston Celtics for the second time in 18 days, which capped off a six-game winning streak.
During that stretch, Houston gave up just 109 points per game, which is over five points per game less than they’re giving up on the season (114.4). On offense, the Rockets averaged 124.2 points per game in those six games, up 6.1 points per game from their season average.
During their losing streak, H-Town has looked significantly worse on both ends of the floor. Their scoring average has plummeted to 108.3, which included a 99-point effort against the Charlotte Hornets, while they’re giving up 119.8 points per game.
Opponents are scoring too many easy buckets in general, as the Rockets are now in the bottom six in the league in both opponents’ points in the paint per game and opponents’ fast break points per game.
More disheartening for Houston is the fact that it’s not as if these bad losses are all coming against elite teams. The New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets are far from even being contenders to make the playoffs while the Orlando Magic are the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
We’ve recently addressed some overall concerns about what could be causing the Rockets to spiral down the standings, but here I’ll be taking a look at three specific ways Mike D’Antoni‘s squad is failing to live up to their potential on defense.
Next: No. 1
Lack of Hustle on Closeouts
On Sunday, the Houston Rockets allowed the Orlando Magic to shoot 44.8 percent from the outside, almost 11 percent better than their season average of 34 percent. Before that, in Charlotte, the Hornets converted on 15 of 32 attempts from beyond the arc for 46.9 percent.
Even the New York Knicks, who are shooting just 33.6 percent from the outside this season, which is 27th in the league, shot 40 percent on 12-of-30 against the Rockets last Monday in a 125-123 victory.
While it’s expected that small ball would result in giving up more rebounds and interior buckets, Houston shouldn’t be struggling this much to stop opponents from lighting it up from the perimeter.
The Rockets are now playing versatile, quick-footed lineups at all times, yet their efforts on closeouts are often lazy and uninspired. Here, James Ennis sneaks away from Robert Covington to pop out to a wide-open spot at the top of the key.
The efforts from P.J. Tucker and Covington to get to the shooter once they realize the space he has is less than ideal:https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/03/08/0021900953/367/e86f75fb-17fe-e185-a3eb-d98d439e7512_1280x720.mp4
Granted, playing a zone scheme in which all of your defenders are surrounding the paint will lead to open threes by default, but they can’t be this open. There’s no excuse for closeouts being this lazy when you have the foot speed the Rockets are rolling out on a daily basis.
Next: No. 2
Failing to Fully Box Out
One thing that’s not surprising about the new-look microball Rockets is how often they’re getting out-rebounded. As of Monday, they’re giving up the fourth-most rebounds in the NBA at 47.1 per game.
Breaking it down further to offensive rebounds allowed per game, the Rockets are 28th in the league, with their 11.2 only being better than the Atlanta Hawks and Portland Trail Blazers. Houston was getting away with this early on in the post-Capela era by shooting well and scoring at a high pace.
Recently, though, they’re starting to form bad habits of halfway boxing out while either being caught ball watching or simply not establishing themselves strongly enough even when they’re starting the rebounding possession in front of their man.
Here, keep your eye on the 6-3 Austin Rivers. When the shot is going up, he’s in position to prevent Mo Bamba from getting the offensive board, but allows him to slip right past him as the ball is hitting the rim.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/03/08/0021900953/155/9aab9eed-ba0c-73dc-85a5-b988cfe1dc95_1280x720.mp4
Once Mo comes down with the ball, even having three Rockets there isn’t enough to stop him that far under the basket. This happened too many times against Orlando and should be a simple mistake that can be corrected with more focus.
In the second quarter, it was Danuel House that allowed something similar to happen. Here, James Ennis and Nikola Vucevic force Rivers and House to switch on the perimeter just as Aaron Gordon is releasing a shot.
House is too slow to get in front of Vucevic, essentially allowing an open drive to the basket without the ball.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/03/08/0021900953/257/5e4b9fb5-c47e-1f08-f610-6ce95460f5bf_1280x720.mp4
The result is another offensive rebound that leads to two shots for Vucevic, continuing Orlando’s momentum.
Obviously, this new style of playing comes with sacrifices on the glass, but there is no margin for these kinds of errors when it comes to something as basic as boxing out. The entire team did a good job of it during their winning streak but seem to have lost that discipline as of late.
Next: No. 3
Allowing Parades to the Basket
Earlier, I mentioned the Rockets being toward the bottom of the league in terms of allowing points in the paint. At 51.5 allowed per game, they’re currently 25th in the NBA in that category. Houston is the only team in the bottom 10 in points in the paint allowed that’s currently in the playoff race at all, which is telling.
During their recent winning streak, the dominance of Russell Westbrook offensively and Covington defensively was making up for these kinds of shortcomings, but the rest of the NBA seems to be adjusting to the Rockets’ new style fairly quickly.
When guys like Convington or Tucker are not in the game, opponents are getting to the basket with little resistance, as D.J. Augustin did here on a simple fake screen from Aaron Gordon.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/03/08/0021900953/172/d35f1937-3330-ae55-00e4-db78b3601a42_1280x720.mp4
In this play, a simple crossover dribble and fake use of the Gordon screen causes Rivers to freeze just enough to allow Augustin a drive to the hoop. This happens frequently in the NBA, however, the better teams usually have help waiting as opponents get near the hoop.
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In this sequence, House, Jeff Green and Westbrook are all checking their men on the perimeter and offer no help inside. Ideally, House or Green must provide some sort of resistance at the bucket here, since they’re in the best position.
If Green is to help in this scenario, Russ could swing over to help on Bamba in the corner, if D.J. finds him.
House has even more reason to help prevent the layup by Augustin, being that the man he’s guarding at the time, Michael Carter-Williams, shoots just 25.4 percent from 3-point range for his career.
Again, this is another area that needs to be cleaned up as quickly as possible. This team was on a roll with these exact guys in February, so it’s not like they lack the personnel to get back to their winning ways.
I would expect some type of player meeting or rotation shift soon if the Houston Rockets come out flat once again on Tuesday against the Timberwolves. Now at sixth in the West, the time to get things back on track is right now.